Ramsey Campbell – Ryre the Mercenary

I know what I’m about to state sounds like heresy to many but, truth be told, I found the four Ryre stories by Ramsey Campbell dull. As in boring, bland, tiresome, uninteresting, and definitely flat: they’re just long pages of nothing happening over and over, of roaming words upon words, of slow flourishing descriptions; and no substance. This was a surprise to me, as I kept reading praises about these stories: and all this lauding is also what drew me to give «Far Away & Never» (1996) a shot at last, which is the short anthology collecting all of the Ryre adventures plus a few extra – and even duller – stories that I won’t even take into account in this review.
The problem is, I was expecting regular sword and sorcery here: but all I got was sword-and-sorcery-flavored horror instead.

Two sides of the same coin
This is the real letdown, and what brought me to dislike these stories soon: they’re horror first and foremost, and only incidentally do they also happen to be sword and sorcery.
True, sword and sorcery often integrates horror themes – they’re two sides of the same coin – but usually the latter are marginal and are brought in mostly to build on atmosphere and add something exotic. Even when they’re central to the plot, showing them is not the story’s main concern, as it focuses on the struggling hero instead, after showing how degenerate or unnatural this horror addition is: after all, the genre’s main attractive is in the action, not the pondering.
The sword and sorcery reader himself expects to see the hero slashing his way through the plot, not loitering for over two thirds of the story and then suddenly waking up, only to start the finale already: sword and sorcery should be an endless stream of action with occasional breaks to give the hero time to get a short rest and the reader a break to catch his breath.
Ruminations don’t belong to heroic fantasy or, at least, they’re not its main concern, whereas horror is all about atmosphere: hence, it does its best to choke the reader slowly with overwhelming words and descriptions and feelings and suggestions and thoughts that don’t advance the plot by an inch but entangle him and lull him into inaction, simply preparing him for that final sentence that stands as the pinnacle of the whole story.

Different expectations from different paths
And here, I fear, starts the misunderstanding, the reason why I couldn’t stand a single sentence from the Ryre stories despite their reputation: I and those who praise them come from two different paths, with different expectations.
The latter read Ryre and the other fantasy tales in this anthology after already knowing Campbell as a writer and appreciating his style and even more so his horror stories: they read this collection as fans, expecting the same suggestions as they already appreciated in his other horror works. As for me, I didn’t even know who Ramsey Campbell was before reading this anthology: I’m no horror enthusiast and just stumbled into the Ryre stories while searching for obscure sword and sorcery characters I had missed so far.
So we’ve come to these same stories following two different paths, motivated by different expectations: on the one hand, the horror fans who read these stories looking for more of the same, but in a sword and sorcery sauce; on the other, a reader who came from heroic fantasy and was expecting regular heroic fantasy but clashed with horror disguised as sword and sorcery, which is all this book is about.
And this is my explanation for such hugely diverging opinions on this collection.

Inaction and atmosphere: ah, the horror!
Ryre is an interesting character, I’ll acknowledge that: competent, efficient, empathetic but merciless, with a well-developed personality of his own. And he’s unlike any other hero by the looks too, as middle age has been harsh with him: he’s described as a forty-something bald man with a crown of hair that grows long from his «shaved head» to his shoulders. A pretty ugly figure to see, for a hero that is.
Nonetheless, he appears both sympathetic and competent: sadly, his stories aren’t alike but, alas, a painful read. They’re extremely slow, with long flourishing descriptions and little action: it’s a cerebral crawl into the plot, not a dash into danger with a devil-may-care attitude.
What these stories really care about isn’t as much action as creating an atmosphere: the whole buildup is clearly intended to prepare the reader for the horror in the end, which means anything else – including what makes a good sword and sorcery story – is neglected as unnecessary. As a matter of fact the threats looming over each adventure are clever enough (monsters always make for good antagonists) but far from being overly creative; rather, they feel more like plot devices than full-fledged rivals with an agenda of their own. Actually, they’re even content with their niche and don’t plot for having more either, until Ryre comes and deals with them.
But their mere presence is enough to explain their real function: they represent an impending doom that already weighs on the scene as soon as the curtain opens, hence they also allow the story to set the desired mood and atmosphere at once, in its slow, uninspiring, dull way.

Plodding at a slow pace
There are only four Ryre stories: all of them have been published between 1977 and 1979 in four of the five issues of the «Swords Against Darkness» anthologies edited by Andrew J. Offutt (reviewed here: the only volume in the series missing its share is the fourth) and then collected both in several anthologies and, in 1996, a dedicated collection titled «Far Away & Never» which also includes three more fantasized horror stories by Campbell. But this isn’t real news but rather common knowledge that can be found online easily.
In his adventures, Ryre always has to face a supernatural threat: a sickish tree-like creature acting as a god in a village (The Sustenance of Hoak); a shapeshifting crab-like moneylender that devours its victims (The Changer of Names); a swarm of morbid winged vampire-worms that abduct their preys (The Pit of Wings); and an infestation of hungry living stones in a cave network, kind of relatives of D&D mimics (The Mouths of Light). The second, «The Changer of Names», is somehow the better of the stories despite the frustrating finale as it’s the more «sword and sorcery-ish» of the lot: while not a memorable read on itself, it features a solid opponent with a plausible motivation of his own.
To stress their unnatural origin and malevolence, all of these creatures have something sickish about them: they’re usually pale white in color, smell of death and enjoy human flesh, both living and dead. Anyhow, they’re never an open threat to the world in general and Ryre in particular: they pose a threat, that’s true, for the village or the area they’re currently infesting and some time in the future they might also become dangerous to a wider region but they don’t usually attack Ryre until he takes action against them first.
And this passiveness is also what makes every story underwhelming: the setup usually introduces these creatures pretty soon and makes it immediately clear that they are the threat that will be dealt with; Ryre even notices them early in the plot but he takes most of the story before realizing he has to act or, rather, deciding he needs to do something with them.
All of this happens just because the stagnant plot still needs to unfold over dozens of pages and meanwhile build up the atmosphere before developing into the obvious outcome: which is the same outcome any sword and sorcery reader would expect of the hero as soon as he discovers the threat, no matter how much the atmosphere has developed so far. See danger, experience threat, jump into action: that’s a no-brainer for sword and sorcery.
For the horror fan instead knowing that both sides have seen and acknowledged each other and are «working» somehow to settle the argument is stimulating enough to delay the ending until the finale is ripe, to harvest every piece of suggestion.
This means the pace is slow – as slow as a year of famine – and keeps twirling around the same concepts over and over, just to bore the reader to death.

A word of advice: avoid these stories
It would be obvious by now: but I confess hereby I don’t like horror. Nonetheless, I enjoy Lovecraft, whose stories are openly horror, and a subgenre of its own for that matter, all about human impotence in front of beings greater than man: which is fine, because they don’t try to be something else.
On the contrary, the Ryre stories come disguised as sword and sorcery, which might include a little horror but is distinctly a heroic genre: some thinking may surface now and then but action always prevails over thoughts, not vice versa. What made Howard’s stories the epitome of sword and sorcery is exactly the way they are written, a continuous stream of action with short rests to catch your breath and start over again, not the endless, slow descriptions that kill both the attention and the storytelling.
I’m used to be the contrarian so I’ll keep wearing my badge with the Ryre stories as well since there’s really nothing more to say about them constructively: everything else I might add now would just result in a tirade about the long hours wasted on stubbornly sticking to reading them, just because I was lured to believe they were any good.
They aren’t.
And you’d better avoid them if you don’t want to be disappointed over this rubbish as I did.

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